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PARADIGMATIC DUO: Ecological artists Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison at their home office in Santa Cruz. They've lived here since 2004.

The Design of Place

Two pioneers in the field of ecological art fix their focus on Santa Cruz

By Traci Hukill

SOMETHING PROFOUND happened in the days after Lakshmi Narayan visited the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley a few weeks ago to see an exhibit by ecological artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. "It stayed with me for days and seeped into my consciousness. I understood it better over a few days' time," says Narayan, founder of Awake Media, a Santa Cruz–based web and print design company. "It made you think of yourself as a steward of the planet."

Titled "Greenhouse Britain and the Force Majeure," the Harrisons' exhibit used maps, poetry, streaming audio and video and a 13-foot floor-mounted model of Great Britain highlighted by projectors to contemplate a future of gently rising rivers and to propose ways for human settlements to "withdraw with equal grace." It included plans for carbon-neutral towns built on high ground, even built vertically, in harmony with the new environmental reality. Narayan says the absence of alarmism and the holistic approach are indicative of the reason she invited the Harrisons to speak at "Design Renaissance: 2010 Sustainable Santa Cruz," a conference happening this Sunday at the Dream Inn. "They understand long-term change and growth," she says. "So they're kind of like our elders."

On a slate of panelists that includes a chaos theorist, a former chief archivist for the Buckminster Fuller Institute, an "organic architect" who is helping to rebuild a run-down block in Dallas and a socially minded industrial designer, the Harrisons stand out not only for their 40 years of experience as eco-artists reframing people's understanding of ecology but also for their intellectual breadth and depth.

"We invented a field," says Newton Harrison, a vigorous man in his 70s with keen eyes behind thick glasses. "Most people think design is making a something or fixing a something—"

"Changing the form or doing something like that," Helen breaks in, her pale eyes lighting up.

"Our work is about thinking," Newton continues. "We find a new ecological narrative that finds its way into planning."

For all the use of the term "ecology," the Harrisons aren't scientists. Newton is an academy-trained artist and Helen a "polymath," as her husband of 55 years puts it, versed in literature, sociology, anthropology and mathematics. Philosophy, literature and their own aesthetic perceptions of the world around them lead them to observations like this one, concerning a 1974–84 project called The Lagoon Cycle. Newton says they'd found that between dams and farmland, the Colorado River watershed was "polluted every way it can be."

"But Sri Lankan rivers, with Roman engineering and Buddhist thinking, multiply their ecosystems," he says. The Harrisons explain. The Sri Lankan rivers drop a foot per mile in the Roman way, but instead of being dammed, they're built with canals, which are more accessible to farmers and villagers along the banks. Since the margins of ecosystems—like riverbanks, for example—teem with life, the canals in effect double or triple the number of riverbanks where plant and animal life can flourish. "So the act of working with water is really the act of serving everybody while multiplying the ecosystems," Newton says.

Other work by the Harrisons, often relating to watersheds, has had more quantifiable applications. In Santa Fe, their examination of the town's dry river bed led to an art installation as well as the city's adoption of a $4 million river restoration plan and several measures to restore the viability of the long-degraded topsoil so it could absorb water during New Mexico's monsoon season.

Having relocated to Santa Cruz from San Diego, their home for nearly four decades, the Harrisons are now preparing to teach a course on collaboration at UCSC and considering "doing something with the San Lorenzo watershed." Asked what they've observed about the San Lorenzo, they demure ("We don't know enough yet"), but Helen does say this much: "We come with the advantage of the eye of a stranger."

THE DESIGN RENAISSANCE conference happens Sunday, April 18, 9am–4pm at the Dream Inn, 175 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz.The Harrisons speak at 2:30pm. Tickets $40. (

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